LAS VEGAS — The Concacaf Gold Cup trophy is a big and heavy piece of hardware that stands a good bet of being the biggest trophy in any display it is a part of, but even as big a trophy as it is, the Gold Cup itself is far from the only thing on the line when the U.S. men’s national team faces Mexico on Sunday in Las Vegas.
For Mexico, the final symbolizes a chance to re-assert its dominance in the Concacaf region, and repair some of the damage done by the team’s loss to the United States in the Nations League final. Losing a second consecutive final against the United States would lead to serious questions about Tata Martino’s project, especially given Martino’s decision to bring a close to full strength squad to the competition.
The United States enters the final having already exceeded expectations as a group. No, reaching the final itself wasn’t a huge surprise, but the way Gregg Berhalter’s team has come together has made the competition a success and already helped the emergence of several young talents, which was ultimately the main goal for this team at the Gold Cup.
It is that reality that has some looking at Sunday’s final as a bonus for the USMNT, leading to the perception that the Americans have far less riding on the final, and are facing much less pressure to win it than Mexico.
Berhalter isn’t buying the notion his team is playing with house money.
“I think it’s a disservice to our guys. I think it’s a disservice to our team,” Berhalter said of any notion that his team has nothing to lose because it isn’t expected to win. “The guys want to win this game. We’re going to do everything we can to win this game, and if we don’t win this game, I can guarantee you we’re going to be bitterly disappointed.”
What does it mean to ‘play with house money’? Basically it’s when someone gambling at a casino has already won back their own money and are now gambling only with profits and winnings, which would be money from the casino, or ‘the house’.
In the case of the USMNT, the progress the young group has made and the talents who have emerged to state good cases for inclusion with the full-strength squad is a prize that the team will be taking home no matter what happens in Sunday’s final.
The thing about house money is that if you wind up losing it, it still stings, and you will still find yourself lamenting what was once in your grasp. The USMNT has a dream opportunity to not only win a trophy as a team, but also restore some of the standing the U.S. team has lost in the rivalry with Mexico, which has won the past three Gold Cup finals played between them, along with its first World Cup qualifying win on American soil in two decades.
The Americans are very much the underdog on Sunday against a Mexico team expected to start seven players who were in the starting lineup for the Nations League final. The USMNT defeated El Tri, 3-2, in the dramatic Nations League final, in a result that resonated because it came in a clash of the best both nations have to offer.
On Sunday, there will be no Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Gio Reyna or any of the USMNT’s top European-based stars, though Mexico will feature the likes of Hector Herrera, Edson Alvarez and Jesus Corona. That reality is not lost on Mexican fans and media, which will be ready to tear into their own team if El Tri manages to lose to an inexperienced and experimental U.S. squad.
That is why the USMNT should expect Mexico to come out flying, looking to assert itself against this young American team, and if the U.S. players aren’t careful, they might suffer the same fate that the 2009 U.S. team suffered at the Gold Cup.
That year, a dozen years ago, an extremely experimental U.S. team competed in the Gold Cup due to the fact the full-strength U.S. team played in the Confederations Cup that same summer. Much like the current 2021 squad, that 2009 team went undefeated at the Gold Cup heading into the final, also posting shutouts in four of five matches.
The Americans went into the 2009 Gold Cup final as the clear underdog against a stronger, although also experimental Mexico squad, and as much as you could argue that they were also ‘playing with house money’ heading into that final, it wasn’t any less painful or embarrassing when Mexico delivered a 5-0 beating at Giants Stadium.
You could argue that result went a long way toward helping restore Mexico’s control of the series, which had been taken over by the United States after beating El Tri at the 2002 World Cup and in the 2007 Gold Cup final, as well as in three Dos-A-Cero wins in home World Cup qualifiers.
That is why Sunday’s final can’t be taken for granted by this USMNT squad, because it offers a precious opportunity to put another dent in Mexico’s grip on control in the Concacaf region. And as much as the United States seems destined to retake control as the best team in Concacaf given how many young Americans are emerging and succeeding in Europe, beating Mexico for a second trophy this summer would speed up that process considerably.
So yes, you can argue the USMNT is playing with house money on Sunday, but as so many visitors to Sin City can attest, there is a significant difference between leaving Las Vegas breaking even after being ahead, and leaving a big winner.